Just after World War I, the musical style called jazz began a waterborne journey outward from that quintessential haven of romance and decadence, New Orleans. For the first time in any organized way, steam-driven boats left town during the summer months to tramp the Mississippi River, bringing an exotic new music to the rest of the nation. For entrepreneurs promoting jazz, this seemed a promising way to spread northward the exciting sounds of the Crescent City. And the musicians no longer had to wait for folks upriver to make their way down to New Orleans to hear the vibrant rhythms, astonishing improvisations, and new harmonic idioms being created.
Simply put, when jazz went upstream, it went mainstream, and in Jazz on the River, William Howland Kenney brings to life the vibrant history of this music and its seduction of the men and women along America's inland waterways. Here for the first time readers can learn about the lives and music of the levee roustabouts promoting riverboat jazz and their relationships with such great early jazz adventurers as Louis Armstrong, Fate Marable, Warren "Baby" Dodds, and Jess Stacy. Kenney follows the boats from Memphis to St. Louis, where new styles of jazz were soon invented, all the way up the Ohio River, where the music captivated audiences in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh alike.
Jazz on the River concludes with the story of the decline of the old paddle wheelers—and thus riverboat jazz—on the inland waterways after World War II. The enduring silence of our rivers, Kenney argues, reminds us of the loss of such a distinctive musical tradition. But riverboat jazz still lives on in myriad permutations, each one in tune with our own times.
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About the Author
William Howland Kenney is professor of history and American studies at Kent State University. He is the author of Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945; Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930; The Music of James Scott; and Laughter in the Wilderness: Early American Humor to 1783.
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Jazz on the River
By William Howland Kenney
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2005 University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGroovin' on the River Louis Armstrong and Riverboat Culture
In April 1919, several years before moving to Chicago, where he cut some of his most important records, Louis Armstrong determined to see where his burgeoning talent as a jazz cornetist, vocalist, and entertainer might take him. In September 1918 he had started playing on a Streckfus Steamers excursion boat that plied New Orleans harbor but, still restless, announced to friends and colleagues that he would be shipping out to perform along the Mississippi River from New Orleans as far north as Minneapolis. Armstrong, who had been born on August 4, 1901, was then seventeen years old. He had decided to accept what looked like an exciting job offer from John Streckfus and his bandleader Fate C. Marable to play in their new hot dance band on board the steamer Sidney. He had not then ventured much beyond the neighborhood of his birth and had only quite recently decided to become a professional musician. But having been left to his own resources from an extremely tender age, he was prepared to embark on what turned into a restless life of touring the circuits, playing for junkets for three seasons on the river. He would later permanently leave the river but continue to travel, taking his restless, fugitive music on a train north to Chicago's South Side. He then traveled by jalopy to New York, by transatlantic steamer to Europe, and ultimately on ocean liners and airplanes that carried him to West Africa and around the world. His youthful decision to work out his future on America's greatest river set into motion a lifetime of exile from his southern home, forcing him to translate for new audiences the music he had pioneered back in New Orleans, rethinking and reinventing himself, exploring his musical capacities and creating new meanings while on the move.
Most of the early historians of jazz linked the emigration of its musicians from New Orleans to the official closing in 1917 of Storyville, the city's vice district, in which some jazzmen had found performance opportunities. That narrow interpretation ignored in Armstrong's as in Marable's case the rich context of the black migration out of the South after World War I, a major chapter in the African American diaspora. A closer look at the outpouring of musical creativity that accompanied the Great Migration indicates that New Orleans jazz pioneers, and those with whom they performed on the river, became the heralds of their people's migration northward. Whereas the blues singers became its musical voices, the jazzmen, led by Armstrong, trumpeted the Great Migration primarily to the wider white world of the racially segregated excursion boats. As heralds and modernist troubadours, they experienced this great movement of people in a way that both paralleled and contrasted with that of the majority who were not musicians.
Armstrong, the many musicians who played with him, and those who followed him onto the riverboats did not migrate in the simplest sense of moving from some point in the South to settle down in Chicago. But neither did many male migrants, who tended to move in a generally northerly direction from one job to another before taking on a major industrial center such as Chicago or Pittsburgh. Although the riverboats did paddle northward up the river, they also steamed eastward and westward across it, before paddling southward back to their original point of departure after Labor Day, their musicians usually still aboard.
Armstrong, for example, worked his way from one small town to another up and down the river for three seasons, reconnoitering the major Mississippi valley urban areas, creating a network of professional contacts that helped him find his way in the world. When he first arrived in St. Louis in 1919, he was stunned by its tall buildings:
There was nothing like that in my home town, and I could not imagine what they were all for. I wanted to ask someone badly, but I was afraid I would be kidded for being so dumb. Finally, when we were going back to our hotel I got up enough courage to question Fate Marable. "What are all those tall buildings? Colleges?" "Aw boy," Fate answered, "Don't be so damn dumb."
He learned quickly by playing after-hours sessions with St. Louis musicians. His meetings with them epitomized the black musical migration in the Mississippi valley. After demonstrating his unsurpassed improvisational talents, Armstrong listened to them and much admired their literacy and musicianship. Together, they all talked about Chicago. This after-hours networking within a context of further migration and travel would continue for many years, creating what the scholar Gerald Early has called a "Black Heartland."
Armstrong, of course, permanently left the riverboats in 1921 to return temporarily to New Orleans. His further migrations to the North came when he boarded an Illinois Central train to travel to Chicago to join King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. He could not have gone there by riverboat, there being no waterway deep or wide enough between the Mississippi River and Chicago to convey him there. While working on the river, Armstrong occasionally returned to New Orleans, and he continued to spend much of his time performing on the road around the world, becoming the prototype of the traveling musician who often seemed to live in trains, planes, taxis, hotel rooms, clubs, and recording studios. His career as the single most celebrated jazz star was a most exceptional one, but he, like most of his colleagues, spent long periods moving from one gig to another.
From the point of view of most Americans, Armstrong's restless world was even more elusive and mysterious than that of Marable. Black musicians were strictly segregated from the white passengers on the riverboats, as, later, from the patrons of the clubs and dance halls of the northern cities. "More than white musicians, black ones were usually excluded from the more stable engagements (of a week or longer)," and often lived through careers filled with musical "one-nighters," their more frequent displacements making them harder to locate at any given moment. Armstrong later described what it was like to be on the road in the South: "Lots of times we wouldn't get a place to sleep. So we'd cross the tracks [into the black section of town], pull over to the side of the road and spend the night there. We couldn't get into hotels. Our money wasn't even good. We'd play nightclubs and spots which didn't have a bathroom for Negroes. When we'd get hungry, my Manager, Joe Glaser, who's also my friend, Jewish and white, would buy food along the way in paper bags and bring it to us boys on the bus who couldn't be served."
Employment on the tramping riverboats offered many of them one of their longest-lasting engagements and was, for that reason alone, a milestone in many careers. But however slowly, the paddle wheelers kept moving, too. Elusive black musicians, for whom Armstrong became a figurehead, lived and worked for months at a time in reasonably close proximity to the white crew and passengers. But, thanks to the Jim Crow regulations on board, they still remained essentially enigmatic to whites, their music new and puzzling, their dress and comportment unlike that of the more familiar levee roustabouts, their after-hours destinations and activities a mystery to most white people.
Calling Armstrong and his fellow musicians "mysterious" presumes, in part, a middle-class white perspective that preferred black musicians to remain largely unknown, the better to stamp them all with racist stereotypes. The musicians could be "known" mostly within the traditions of riverboat entertainment. In the 1920s, American audiences still looked for exotic characters when stepping onto riverboats for their musical entertainment. Given the long tradition of minstrelsy, most whites thought that any black roustabout, deck hand, or musician carried an air of mystery, gaiety, and danger. During his years on the river, Armstrong, who, as we shall see, remained largely docile in the face of racial oppression, began to think about the need for an on-stage persona from this artificial racial perspective, one that would reinterpret elements of the minstrel show stereotypes.
His arrival on the excursion boat scene found him near the start of his long career as a crossover musical entertainer, and he was then a timid young man, as yet unsure who he was. But even he could not ignore his amazing talent, so Armstrong gradually discovered the courage to confidently project an image, one at which American audiences marveled in the 1930s and 1940s. By then, he had conjured an "in-between" restless persona in which he mixed his unsurpassed instrumental improvisations with an unusual jazz patois, hoarse yells, scat singing, an eyeball-rolling, handkerchief-waving, leering humor mixed with pathos, and a mysterious musical sensibility that keened in its joy. Smiling and bowing reassuringly, Armstrong nevertheless seemed a subversive enigma, his music and gruffly masculine presence slyly creating ironic reversals of beloved lyrics and melodies, his fevered imagination an unpredictable, surging force.
The new riverboat musician's early experiences had engendered a tough resilience and a determination to succeed as a musical entertainer. According to Laurence Bergreen, his had been a "wretched" childhood. His memories of its pain and promise had led Armstrong, like the true artist, to signify on it (reinterpret it) onstage, in his music, and in his patter. On the typewriter that he brought on board with him, he initiated a long life of banging out jazzy letters that rarely failed to mention some detail from his "gruesome" days and nights as a timid child in a dangerous world on the grimy sidewalks and in the squalid brothels and cabarets of Storyville. Yet, as Bergreen insists, Armstrong was full of surprises: thanks in large part to music, he later came to insist that his childhood had been an ideal one for a jazz musician. In so doing, he usually reached for the laugh but still revealed an "edge of anger" and hurt stemming from the fact that his father had not only abandoned him and the family but had then paraded proudly through the streets of black New Orleans. His stories about Mardi Gras high jinks included stark recollections of the routine beatings and "head-whippings" the New Orleans whites meted out to inoffensive black workers. His soaring music expressed the mingling of joy and sorrow in his heart. Some of his colleagues "thought they detected a voodoo ethos about" Armstrong, and, indeed, he was familiar with voodoo and included some of its seemingly nonsensical chanting in his vocals.
Armstrong's painful recollections of his errant father, his own forced incarceration in an orphanage, his betrayals by powerful figures of the New Orleans demimonde such as "Black Benny" Williams, and the terrible racial oppression that forced him into a life of exile all brought sounds of sorrow and melancholy to his carnivalesque jazz. The poet Nathaniel Mackey has explained that for those who, like Armstrong, have been subjected to the "social death" of racism and abandonment by a parent, "song is both a complaint and a consolation dialectically tied to that ordeal, where in back of 'orphan' one hears echoes of 'orphic,' a music that turns on abandonment, absence, loss. Think of the black spiritual 'Motherless Child.' Music is wounded kinship's last resort." When discussing Armstrong's scat vocals, Mackey argues that "scat's blithe mangling of articulate speech testified to an 'unspeakable' history" of racial oppression that only worsened during Armstrong's years on the river.
In his published statements, Armstrong maintained an impenetrable diplomatic silence about the many difficulties of his decision to leave New Orleans. He admitted to feeling homesick, missing his mother and sister, friends and cronies, but he clearly signaled that he had exchanged his hometown for an excursion steamer in hopes of finding a better life. Most of the leading New Orleans musicians who had made a deep impression on him were leaving. The cornetist and bandleader Joseph "King" Oliver had decided to move to Chicago. The trombonist and bandleader Edward "Kid" Ory had determined to give Los Angeles a try. A surprising number of jazz musicians traveled the Gulf Coast network of waterways, railroads, and highways in search of greater employment opportunities in music. Among them were John Handy, Sam Morgan, Edmund Hall, Cootie Williams, Lee Collins, Buddy Petit, Oscar Celestin, Clarence Desdunes, Billie Pierce, Sadie Goodson Peterson, and Ida and Edna Goodson. The trumpeter Don Albert joined the migration of African Americans who lived west of New Orleans, on the western side of the Mississippi River, to Texas. The reedman Sidney Bechet had headed for Europe. All of them would live their lives in transit, a bag packed, a telegram announcing the next gig sliding under the door. Many of them ranged as far west as Texas, well up into the northern Midwest, and south to Mexico and Cuba. Many others joined Armstrong on board the vessels of Streckfus Steamers.
Armstrong became the most celebrated representative of a broader and more diverse movement. Looking back after becoming jazz's first superstar, he left no doubt that working from 1916 to 1918 as a musician in and around New Orleans in Kid Ory's band had offered him his start toward professional advancement. The cornetist's wonderful ebullience gave a can-do, Horatio Alger tone to his memoirs of black Louisiana. But working with Ory never would have paid enough to free Armstrong or any of Ory's other musicians from long hours of manual labor during the week. Armstrong continued to sell coal door-to-door. Several other musicians worked as longshoremen and stevedores. In Louisiana, they could only hope to be part-time musicians who played for local black audiences, their wages modest at best.
The "moldy figs" of the post-World War II years-people who clung desperately to early jazz in the face of the bebop revolution of the 1940s-spied purity and authenticity in black New Orleans music before it responded to white riverboat audiences and the big city media, but it would be easy to romanticize the musicians' struggles. Kid Ory had had so much trouble getting gigs that he had started promoting fish fries on a plantation in rural Laplace, Louisiana, one whose grounds reached down to the Mississippi. Ory and his friends caught fish straight out of the Big Muddy. His uncle, who ran a grocery store in Laplace, gave Ory whiskey and beer to sell, as well-five cents for a drink, five cents for a fish sandwich.
Refusing to sit about waiting for gigs to come to him, Ory organized parties, becoming bandleader, promoter, bookkeeper, treasurer, and fish fryer. He sought out houses left empty by people who had migrated elsewhere in search of work.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Playing Changes: Music, Movement, and the Performance of Power on "America's River Nile"
1. "Masters of the River": Streckfus Steamers, Inc. and the "Swan Complex"
2. Fate Marable, Musical Professionalism, and the Great Migration
3. Groovin' on the River: Louis Armstrong and Riverboat Culture
4. From Beale Street to Market Street: Music and Movement Through Memphis and St. Louis
5. "Blue River": Bix Beiderbecke and Jess Stacy on the Mississippi
6. Steamin' to the End of the Line: Jazz On, Along, and Beyond the Ohio River
Epilogue: The Decline and Fall of Excursion Boat Jazz in St. Louis
Appendix A: Excursion Boat Musicians
Appendix B: River Songs and Tunes